A CHRISTMAS TOAST • by Frank Zubek

“Dad, there’s a car in the driveway,” Andy said. I turned my attention away from the evening newspaper I was reading and walked into kitchen to join him. Sure enough, there was a car in our driveway. It wasn’t my wife, Becky, since I knew she was out with friends and wasn’t due back for at least another hour.

Becky and I weren’t expecting any company until next weekend for our annual New Year’s Eve bash, so whoever was in the driveway was either a week early for the party, or lost.

“Stay here, Andy,” I told him as I pulled on my coat. I shut the door behind me and walked towards the car. The man behind the wheel rolled down the driver’s side window and raised both hands in a peaceful gesture. “I’m so sorry. I’ll just leave. Please don’t call the police.” I stood a safe distance from him, still unsure of what was going on, though he looked harmless enough from where I stood.

“It’s okay. Are you lost? Do you need directions?”

“Uh, not really. You see, I used to live here, actually,” he said, pointing at the house. “Back in the nineties. Ninety-seven actually.” I could see that his eyes were filled with fond memories. “You’ve kept it up pretty well,” the man said. “It looks great.”

I took a moment to wave to Andy to let him know everything was okay. “So,” I asked, “you happened to be in the neighborhood?”

“Actually, I was out with friends and was headed home. I live on the west side of town now. On the way home, I kept thinking of the old place and wound up here. Once I realized what I had done, I knew I should have left, but, I just wanted to sit here and just, well…”

“Remember old times,” I said.

He nodded his head in silence. He put the car in park and stepped out of the car. “I’m Dennis.”

“Bill.” I offered, “You want some coffee for the road? I have Styrofoam cups with lids.” I figured it couldn’t hurt to at least offer him something warm for his drive home.

“Sure, if it wouldn’t be any trouble.”

“No, no trouble. I have a fresh pot on. Be right back.” I hurried inside and poured us both a cup and a moment later I was back outside.

“Carrie loved this place,” he said as he sipped at his cup.

“Carrie?” I asked.

“My wife. She picked it out. Every year we’d decorate the place up for the holidays. We had everything you could want from life, so, for luck, she always insisted that we stand out here and toast the house on Christmas night.” He paused as he sipped at the coffee and I could only imagine the rush of memories he was experiencing. He walked to the front of his car and pointed towards the backyard. “I used to play catch with my son back there near the garage. Well, for a couple of summers at least. Before the accident.” In between sips of the coffee, he would wipe at his cheeks with his coat sleeve. At first I thought it was the light snowfall but then I knew it was something else.

“You mentioned an accident.”

“Back in ’97. Christmas night, as a matter of fact. Carrie and Steve, our son, had been out for dinner. I was here catching up on paperwork for the office. Busy, stupid job.”

“And there was an accident.” I nudged him along a bit.

Dennis nodded. “Drunk driver. He was doing seventy. It happened two blocks down, actually. The roads were slick with ice, just like they are tonight. The emergency room doctor told me that Carrie and Steve didn’t feel anything.”

“I’m sorry.” I studied him as he wiped another tear from his cheek.

“It’s okay,” he said. With the tears wiped away, he shook his head as he looked at me. “Life. It’s there right in front of you. Letting you imagine you have all the time in the world. But the minute you blink.”

I smiled back and nodded my head.

“Well, I’d better get going.”

“Listen. What about a quick little toast? For old times’ sake?”

Dennis smiled. “What are we toasting?”

I paused for only a moment as I thought of just the right thing to say. “To those we love — and to not blinking.”

Dennis nodded and raised his cup to mine. We tapped them lightly together and then took a drink. Without a word, he quickly got back into the car.

His window was still down and I stepped towards the car. “Dennis?”

“Yeah?” He asked.

“How about stopping by for New Year’s Eve? We’re having some friends over.”

“Okay.” He smiled and shook my hand. Putting the car in gear, he drove away into the night.

***

“Who was that, Dad?” Andy asked as I took off my coat.

“A friend of mine, kiddo. He’s coming over for the party next week.”

Half an hour later, Becky came home from a small party she had gone to with friends. I helped her off with her coat and kissed her. It was a deep kiss and I held her close when I hugged her. “Let’s take a quick picture, okay?”

I sat in my easy chair with Becky on my lap and Andy leaning into the shot. I held the camera out at arm’s length as millions of people did.

“Don’t blink,” I said. The camera flashed and another memory was taken.


Frank Zubek lives in Ohio with his wife. He hopes to one day quit the rat race and be a full time writer.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Oh, sad! Poor Dennis!

    The emergency room doctor told me that Becky and Steve didn’t feel anything.

    That was supposed to be Carrie and Steve, right?

  • Oscar Windsor-Smith

    Great story idea, Frank. And an excellent message. I missed the error that Erin spotted, but I did feel (and this is only being picky because I do like the story so much) a slight ‘pruning’ is still needed. E.g., …I was reading… is redundant, so is the ‘quickly’ as Dennis gets back into the car. IMO, these tiny ‘tightening up’ points can make the difference between a good piece and an excellent one.

    Make no mistake, I love this. And it moved me, which say everything.

    Merry Christmas, all, and a safe, healthy and secure New Year.

    🙂 scar

    BTW (this is for Frantic Fiction ans well as Frank) I had to log on to the website to get this ‘response’ facility. When the email arrived it had no ‘Response’ button. This is the second time I’ve experienced this. I’m sure Frank would have more comments were it not for this glitch.

  • Angela

    Sad-very moving. I figured out he experienced a great loss when he was just staring at the house. I thought you captured this intense moment well! nice job!

  • Oscar Windsor-Smith

    Correction (and apologies) Above, I meant Everyday Fiction, not Frantic Fiction (a regular competition on the excellent SlingInk website.

    Sorry!

  • Both inspirational and perfectly timed.

  • Jen

    Aww, I’ve often stopped at a couple of my old houses and wondered what it would feel like to be invited in. That was sweet and sad, but in a good way.

  • Great. A piece of time that I felt could happen to me this Christmas Eve morning. I wanted to look out in my driveway.

  • I was expecting it to turn into a train wreck–Dennis would be a little drunk, and hit Becky on her way home–but I loved that it worked out happily. Nice, sweet ending without getting sentimental. Thanks for the story!

  • km rockwood

    Bittersweet story for the holidays! I enjoyed it.

    Only suggestion is to watch for the “actuallys.”

  • Nice piece, Frank. The ending reminded me of the ending of Charles D’Ambrosio’s story “Homecoming,” which is a good thing.

  • I liked this very much, Frank. It touched me with its simple but deep message that is so needed these days. I kept thinking Dennis would turn out to be a crook, but all’s well that ends well 🙂 I feel the dialogues can be warmed up a bit, they’re a bit stiff. But I gave this 5 stars anyway. Good luck.

  • Marie Shield

    Touching. Liked Bill from the beginning – when he steps outside to ‘protect’ his family from possible harm – then ends up with more reason to appreciate and protect them.

  • Bob

    I liked this. The message is universal and easily lost in the exigencies of everyday life.

    That said, you really didn’t need to kill off Dennis’s wife and child to bring it home. The drunk driver meme is a little over-played, a little melodramatic. Regret and resolve to remember can be just as poignant over losses due to time, age and neglect – and they’re more accessible that way.

    Not a complaint about the story, so much as an observation.

  • Robert Mawhinney

    I thought Dennis would be a little drunk, and hit Becky on her way home. I loved that it worked out happily. Nice ending without getting overly sentimental. Thanks for the story! I would like to hear more from this author.
    Bob

  • Celeste

    Lovely snapshot of life, Frank. Great, natural dialogue.